Prologue: A Most Unexpected, Very Special Guest PROLOGUE A MOST UNEXPECTED, VERY SPECIAL GUEST
THURSDAY, JUNE 7, 2018
ANNA WARE JACKSON SCHOOL PLAINVILLE, MASSACHUSETTS
“We’re almost there!” I announced with a small sigh of relief as I caught sight of the street sign that promised we were nearly at our destination.
“Almost there,” I repeated a little louder, turning around from the passenger seat to reassure our canine population in the back—two of them buckled in on the seat, and the littlest two, each asleep in their own carriers on the floor, that “as soon as we get there, everyone gets to go pee!”
Our two back-seat passengers both pricked up their ears, each turning their heads in my direction with their version of dog smiles.
From as far back as I can remember, probably as young as five or six years old, I have always talked—and listened—to animals. That was around the same age that I realized with lasting certainty that when I grew up I was going to become a veterinarian. For some it’s a profession, for me a calling—the only one thing I ever wanted to do.
My husband glanced over to give me a skeptical look, as if to ask, Didn’t you say we were almost there about fifteen minutes ago?
After a beat, Warren—whom our three kids and I all think kind of looks like Will Ferrell if he wore glasses, only more athletic—shook his head and laughed, being the good sport that he almost always is. This was not how he’d hoped to spend a Thursday during one of the more demanding times of the year for his high-pressure job working at a major bio-pharmaceutical company.
With a hopeful nod, I promised, “You’ll see, this will be fun. It’s gonna be worth it.”
The two-and-a-half-hour trip from our house in Westport, Connecticut, to Plainville, Massachusetts, to pay a surprise visit to a classroom of third graders had looked like an easy drive on our GPS, but we had hit a few traffic snarls and the trek was now taking forever. The day itself had begun gloomily with overcast skies, but the dogs don’t change their routines just because there’s bad weather. We still started the day as we always did, making sure that all seven members of our dog pack were up and out to do their morning business—in two groups—and were fed and accounted for before we loaded up the van.
Our morning routine is elaborate, though pretty well set, and everyone knows the drill. Unless the weather is irresistible, we don’t do too much playing in the mornings—especially not on a day when some of us have to get on the road by nine. On this particular day, once inside, everyone lined up to be fed, each in her or his self-proclaimed spot. After eating, the dogs waited at attention while I prepped food for my birds—each canine watching intently as I cut up the birdie veggies and pieces of cooked eggs. The little scrambled egg “pockets” that I use for dispensing pills to the different dogs who need them were, as usual, the featured delicacy of the morning. Moving faster than normal, after I fed Lukita, our blue parakeet, I ran up the stairs, cleaned the cages of the three rescued house sparrows—Sunny, Betty, and Blind Boy Willie—and filled their dishes with fresh food and water. Before it was time to leave, I let everyone out again, all the while talking to them and letting them know the agenda for the day.
I’m always amazed at how the dogs pay full attention to me when I’m talking, carefully listening for words they recognize. On such hectic mornings as this one, I do sometimes wonder whatever happened to our “two-dog MAX” (as in maximum) rule. Somehow we make it work.
The hardest part this day had been reassuring the animals who weren’t coming with us that we’d be back before too long. Each of our dogs has a job, and one job they all share is to support one another, as I reminded Dean, Annie, and Gina. Dean is our handsome Lab mix who loves car rides but also enjoys being a couch potato. Annie is our exceptionally sweet, shy, tan terrier mix. And Gina is our beautiful white Australian shepherd/border collie mix, who is deaf in one ear and has vision deficits, along with separation anxiety when I’m not nearby.
Each of the three watched me go with stoic resolve while Lukita, chirping away, put in his foreign-flavored two cents as I ran out the door into the morning mist.
Once on the road, the clouds finally began to lift, and the sun broke through by the time we exited the highway. We picked up speed briefly, but as soon as we made it to the local streets of Plainville, we hit a maze of stop signs, right turns, left turns, and wrong turns. Just when I started to get nervous that we might never arrive, we came around a corner and spotted the elementary school.
“We’re here!” I announced as we pulled into the crowded parking lot and began to scout around for a vacant space. A couple of tails began to wag. Susie, our gray terrier, the sweetest and most senior of our seven dogs at twelve years old, shook herself into an alert position. She understood that it was time to go to work. Next to her, Evie, our five-year-old vivacious white poodle/terrier mix, also seemed to beam, craning her neck to look outside and confirm that I was telling the truth about our arrival.
Before I’d gotten a chance to get the littlest ones out of their carriers, I realized that there were other cars parking and excited-looking adults hurrying toward the entrance to the school, many of them dressed in some shade of pink.
Pink? For a split second, I thought that was odd, maybe just coincidental. Was there something else happening at school that day besides our planned surprise visit to the classroom of Tricia Fregeau? As I glanced down at my own pink T-shirt, it occurred to me that the other adults in pink could be connected in some way to our arrival. Well, not our arrival, so much as that of the very special guest of honor.
“Hmmm?” I heard Warren say from outside the van, where he was pulling out leashes and setting up the stroller, clearly having the same thoughts as me. From inside her carrier, Zoey, a six-pound three-year-old chocolate Chihuahua/Yorkie-Maltese mix, let out an eager bark, which sounded close to Let me out! I want to play and be part of the action!
Last but not least, I opened up the carrier holding tiny Piglet, who yawned and stretched, waking up from his beauty sleep. With a gentle tap—over his shoulders and back—to let him know it was time to go out and find a spot for peeing that was to his liking (never easy), I couldn’t resist getting in a couple of kisses and snuggles. Even though I am keenly aware that he can’t hear a word that I say to him, and though I know he will never be able to see me, I have always talked to him out loud with gestures and expressions. In his own way, I am convinced, he understands.
“Piggy Lee,” I asked, using one of my umpteen nicknames for him, “ready? Everyone’s waiting.”
If a dog could shrug, that’s exactly what Piglet did, with a kind of amazing confidence that made me imagine him saying, Ready? I was born ready! And then, holding his leash as I set him on the ground alongside Zoey, we started to follow Warren, who was pushing the stroller and holding the leashes attached to Susie and Evie. We turned toward the main entrance and I watched the five-and-a-half-pound Piglet—handsome in a striped, collegiate kind of red-white-and-blue T-shirt—pause, take a moment to compose himself, and then let loose with a twirly, wiggly dance.
Unbelievable. He almost seemed to know he was a rock star and that this was his day, that he had come on a long car drive with three members of his Inclusion Pack (as we later dubbed it), with his human Dog-Mom, me, and his Favorite Dad, to put smiles on the faces of children who had no idea that they were going to get to meet him in person.
Like everything else that had happened over the previous fifteen months since the tiny, one-pound, deaf blind pink puppy had entered our lives, this entire outing had come about in the most unexpected of ways. After having Piglet for a very short time, I had started posting videos and pictures of him on my Facebook page. Within a month, at the suggestion of friends and family, I created his own page and called it “Piglet, the deaf blind pink puppy.” One of my main goals was to get the word out about the importance of fostering, adopting, and caring for special-needs animals and about the little-known condition that had caused Piglet’s disabilities. As a Chihuahua/ dachshund mix, Piglet was the product of two dapple-colored (multicolored or splotchy) parents. Dapple-to-dapple breeding results in a twenty-five percent chance of the offspring being born “double dapple”—a mostly white color pattern linked to congenital ear and eye defects that commonly result in partially or completely deaf and/or blind puppies.
To my surprise, the Piglet posts gained a lot of traction. There was something about him in his pictures and videos that gave complete strangers a feeling of connection and license to express their emotions in text. There were dozens of comments on any one post, and I took the time to read each and every one. I got to know many of Piglet’s followers quite well. One comment by Tricia Fregeau stood out, and I felt compelled to respond.
The fact that Piglet is able to be successful in spite of his limitations is a testament to the patience and hard work of his human parents. Thank you for taking such good care of him and letting him see this side of humanity rather than the side that he started life with! I can’t wait to show Piglet videos to my third-grade students so they can see the amazing things that can be accomplished no matter who or what stands in your way!
PIGLET, THE DEAF BLIND PINK PUPPY:
I can provide you with a personalized video for your students if you’d like.
I would love that!
A short time later, in the fall of 2017, I created a PowerPoint presentation called “The Story of Piglet, the deaf blind pink puppy” and posted it as a video on YouTube so it was easily accessed by Tricia and eventually other teachers. I had no idea exactly what Tricia had planned until she reported the response to the video:
They love him!! We finished his story this week and the students brainstormed about Piglet’s mindset in overcoming challenges. Thank you! We love our little pink mascot!
Soon after that, I received a photo from Tricia that showed me what her third-grade students thought about Piglet and his mindset. On a large white poster with a photo of the deaf blind pink puppy in the middle of it and a caption at the top reading, “A Piglet Mindset is…,” words and phrases suggested by students were printed out in a bright pink marker:
OPTIMISTIC—NEVER GIVING UP—HARD-WORKING
SMART—STRONG—EXCITED ABOUT EVERYTHING
LOVABLE—ENERGETIC—HAPPY—LEARNING NEW THINGS
MAKING THE MOST OF WHAT YOU HAVE—PRODUCTIVE—KEEP TRYING
NEVER STOPPING—FOLLOWING DREAMS
Their creativity inspired mine. Over the course of the school year, I created three more PowerPoint videos to illustrate specific examples of Piglet’s positive attitude toward facing his challenges. The students and Ms. Fregeau would often send messages together with questions and comments about how Piglet had made a difference in their lives and how he was helping them believe they could make a difference for others. She kept a basket in the classroom filled with handmade soft pink, floppy Piglet ears on headbands that the children could wear to get into a Piglet State of Mind. Parents loved the program. One mom reported that whenever her daughter was acting out, she’d overhear her asking herself, “What would Piglet do?” and that would calm her down long enough to come up with her own way to cope with whatever was bothering her.
Tricia offered to let me share her lesson plans and aspects of her program on Piggy’s pages, which in turn inspired other teachers to introduce Piglet to their students. As the daughter of a teacher, I was thrilled to honor my mother’s passion and talent this way. We began to discuss the possibility of a visit to the classroom from Piglet and me. As a backup plan—because schedules and logistics could always change last-minute—we settled on the idea of a Skype session. The closer we came to the end of the year, though, the more determined I was to make a live-and-in-person visit happen. Soon the elements for the surprise came together, along with the added idea of throwing a Pink Party to celebrate everything the students had learned from adopting a Piglet Mindset.
There would be pink balloons and pink refreshments, and all the students in the class would be encouraged to wear pink. Naturally, for the Pink Party, all the third graders could wear the pink felt Piglet ears in solidarity with their tiny pink mascot. Tricia would inform her class that they were going to do a Skype call with Piglet for them to watch on the SMART Board—a projection screen—in order for them to include him in their party.
We devised a plan for the students to be seated on the carpet in front of the SMART Board, waiting for us to appear on-screen, so that we could discreetly enter from the back of the room and call out, “Surprise!”
From the minute we approached the main entrance to the school, it was clear that every adult—from the administrators, teachers, and staff to parents and other special visitors—was in on the surprise. With Piglet posed in a proud, seated position in his stroller, lined with plenty of cozy blankets to make him comfortable, you would have thought that royalty had just arrived at the Jackson School in Plainville. A handful of parents and office staff were right there in the lobby and gathered around to have their own viewing, some of them snapping selfies with the little pink celebrity and with the other dogs too.
When I checked to see how Warren was enjoying himself so far, I could tell he was warming up to the experience. But nothing could have prepared us for what happened next, when we were shown to the door of Ms. Fregeau’s third-grade classroom.
There were parents and teachers standing all around the perimeter of the room, holding up their phones to capture the kids’ reactions, and there was Tricia Fregeau, who was in the middle of announcing that the Skype call was about to start when she signaled to us to enter.
Every adult in the room called out, “Surprise!” as Piglet rolled in, sitting up at attention in his chariot. While I pushed the stroller, the three dogs—Susie, Evie, and Zoey—bounded in with Warren in tow. The reaction was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before or since. Warren said it was as close to the first time the Beatles came to America as anything he had experienced in his own life.
Every single child, and almost every adult, in the room began to cry. I cried. Ms. Fregeau wiped her tears. All the parents cried. Warren did his best to maintain composure, but he joined the tear fest as well. It was one of the most breathtaking, heartwarming, tear-jerking, and unexpected experiences that we had ever had. That is saying a lot because Warren and I have three children, now college-age and starting their real-world lives, who are each extraordinary in their own way, and who have given us untold numbers of proud moments.
As the visit went on, I felt a level of pride that could not be put into words. Throughout our time in the classroom, Piglet was calm and regal, demonstrating with poise and elegance all the things he could do. The Piglet Show, as we call our performance of tap-signal tricks, was a smash hit. His three sister dogs, whom I would always prep by telling them, “You’re going to be in the show today!” really got into the scene.
The children stayed seated in sheer amazement, barely making a sound, so as not to miss anything. We began with the basics, demonstrating “sit”—which each dog would do, one by one. I would say, “Zoey, sit!” and she would. “Susie, sit!” and “Evie, sit!” Next, I said, “Sit, Piglet!” even though we all knew he couldn’t hear me, but at the same time I tapped him lightly on his lower back, right above his tail. Piggy responded to this familiar tap signal with an impeccable sit, lifting his head for the cookie that he knew was coming.
“Piglet can do just what the other dogs can do!” one little boy exclaimed. A chorus of agreement followed.
We moved on to demonstrating “wait” and how I could call each dog to come to me by name—Susie, Zoey, and Evie. Piglet sat waiting until I offered his tap signal to come to me, a gentle swipe under his chin. He came right over to join the other three dogs in a sit, at which time each got their treats. Next, we did a brief Q&A; I could not have been more impressed by the thoughtfulness of the questions from the third graders. Hands shot up in the air, and each question showed a striking amount of empathy and the desire to know about what it was really like to be Piglet. All four dogs sat looking out at the children, as though they were answering questions right along with me.
After the Q&A, I sat in a chair with Piglet in my lap, wrapped in a blanket, and all the kids lined up so they could come and meet him—one by one. Each child had a story to share. “I have a blind dog too.” “We just adopted a puppy from a shelter.” “He’s very smart!” One of the last children to approach us was a little boy with a blond crewcut and a big smile. He put his hand on Piglet’s head and then on his own. I asked, “What are you doing?” and he said, “We have the same haircut.”
Toward the end of this amazing day, I thought of something our daughter Rachael had said the first time she met Piglet when he was so much tinier, and so anxiety-ridden, and so very, very pink.
We had gone to help her move from one apartment to another in New York City, and we had brought Piglet along. Rachael, brilliant and beautiful, and a formidably gifted pianist, who was getting ready to start a promising career in the field of international finance, had lovingly taken tiny baby Piglet in her arms. She looked down at him all snuggled in her coat and then looked up and said, “I feel like I gave birth to him.”
I totally understood how she felt. Holding him and caring for him is unlike my feelings for any of my other dogs. It’s not that I love him any more. It’s that I actually feel the tug of protectiveness and pride that I can only associate with motherhood. It’s just an inexplicable, almost embarrassing emotion that he elicits.
That was what I was feeling during the end-of-the-year Pink Party for Ms. Fregeau’s third graders. It was a rite of passage for Piglet, the deaf blind pink puppy. He had come so far, unexpectedly, and had touched so many lives in ways I never would have imagined.
In those moments, I like to think this book was born—a reminder to the world of how much we can accomplish by caring for our fellow beings, human and nonhuman, whether disabled or not, or simply an individual searching for a little extra consideration and kindness. There will always be too many abandoned and neglected animals in need of rescue or just overlooked and unwanted. But Piglet definitely came into our lives to teach us lessons. Just when you think you can’t open your heart any more than you already have, something can happen to help you discover that you have more to give. And what you get from being open to the unexpected in animals and in humans is the greatest gift you can ever receive.
There’s a Buddhist saying most of us have heard at one point or another that “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” In my experiences and observations—certainly with musical training and in my educational/professional journey—that proverb has been right on the money. But with Piglet, the unexpected twist was that ours was a case of “when the teacher is ready, the student will appear.”
Piglet, the deaf blind pink puppy, was that very student who showed up with such a capacity to learn, he put me on notice.
How did it happen? How did Piglet make his way into our lives, and how was he now getting ready to spark a global movement? The craziest part of the story is that, statistically speaking, it’s a miracle that he even made it into our care alive.
That’s the story I decided to write that day in Plainville—about a miracle puppy who dared to live.